By Nhau Mangirazi
When Lucia Madara (not her real name), went on her periods for the first time at age 14 last year, she was left confused and desperate.
Madara, from Mapuranga village under Chief Mjinga, in Zimbabwe’s Hurungwe district, is deaf and struggles to communicate with her close relatives, who hardly understand Sign Language.
She started menstruating soon after Zimbabwe was put under a tight lockdown for the first time at the end of March 2021 to combat the spread of Covid-19.
‘‘It was hard for her to understand what was happening to her body as this needed someone, who understood her condition,” Madara’s aunt Josephine said.
“Eventually, when we understood what was happening to her, getting sanitary wear was problematic.
“She always felt out of place when she was on her periods although she was not going to school due to the lockdown.”
Lucia’s story resonates with those of thousands of vulnerable girls across Zimbabwe, who are denied their rights to sexual reproductive health because of poverty or disability.
Prices of sanitary wear are beyond the reach of many rural families,and this forces girls from rural areas to resort to using unhygienic material when they are menstruating.
The situation for poor girls became worse after the introduction of lockdowns to slow down the spread of Covid-19 as family incomes have been reduced and travel restrictions make it difficult for non-governmental organisations to reach
Agnes Chimbiri, Deaf Women Included executive director, said lockdowns had made it more difficult for rural girls to access sexual reproductive health services.
‘‘Lockdown has literally affected sexual reproductive health for mostly women and girls,” Chimbiri said.
“The worst affected are rural girls, who can’t afford to buy sanitary wear when it is needed most.”
She said her organisation has been trying to assist some of the vulnerable girls.
“As Deaf Women Included, we managed to give menstruation packs and soap to some beneficiaries as we continue to make sexual reproductive health rights and gender-based services accessible,” Chimbiri said.
“We are advocating for inclusion of women and girls with disabilities in accessing these services.
“We continue to raise awareness on the needs of women and girls with disabilities and to engage service providers to find solutions to some of the challenges as collectively.”
Young Women Christian Association national secretary general, Mucha Mukamuri, said they had trained a group of young women to make reusable sanitary pads as way of ending period poverty.
‘‘For sexual reproductive health rights, our organisation trained a group of young women on making reusable sanitary pads,” Mukamuri said.
“The reasoning behind this initiative is that sanitary pads are way expensive and beyond the reach of many.
“Training on skills to make reusable pads was the best to do because they last longer.
“We also advocated for continued subsidies for the sanitary pads.’’
United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), executive director, Natalia Kanem recently bemoaned reduced funding for sexual reproductive health services as the world channelled resources into fighting Covid-19.
“Covid-19 has laid bare stark inequalities and weaknesses in healthcare systems within and among countries,” Kanem said in a statement to mark this year’s World Population Day.
“The crisis has caused many overstretched health systems to scale back sexual and reproductive health services, which are often not deemed essential.
“While these services are a human right, they have been shunted aside in favour of more pressing concerns.”
She added: “Amid economic pressures and budget cuts, there is a real risk that some countries may fail to restore these services.
“Even if health systems are understandably strained, these services cannot wait.
“Any further delays will curtail the health and well-being of women and girls, consequences that can last a lifetime.”
UNFPA said in Zimbabwe’s marginalised areas and rural communities, women and young girls still struggled to access reproductive health services, especially preventive services with family planning, cervical cancer screening and treatment standing out.
‘‘Gender based violence remains a huge problem in Zimbabwe as it affects at least one in three women and girls, according to the latest Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey,’’ UNFPA said.
Chimbiri said they continued to offer services to women and girls in marginalised areas despite the challenges.
‘‘During lockdown, we continue to give gender-based violence services that include counselling, case management and referrals,” she said.
“We are receiving cases from as far as Guruve, Chinhoyi and Midlands, among other places.
“Some of the cases require training in formal sign language, and transport to court or link with other service providers.’’